The Shadow World of Immigrant Youth Detention

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An estimated 13,000 young people are being held at immigrant youth detention centers around the U.S., trapped in a shadowy world that evokes the penal practices of Communist-era authoritarian governments like East Germany, according to attorneys and youth advocates.

The advocates, representing some of the leading U.S. groups working with immigrants, painted a stark and chilling portrait of the detention system for undocumented youth at a conference at John Jay College last week. They warned the abuses will increase as the Trump Administration continues to step up its immigration crackdown.

“It’s become another world,” said Paige Austin, staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s unbelievable that this system exists in the United States.”

Lewis Cohen, senior director of communications for the National Center for Youth Law, said that government-funded centers are now holding immigrant youths for months and even years.

“The government is gearing up for mass incarceration of children, children who don’t have protection of the U.S. juvenile justice system,” Cohen said.

The deep poverty and gang violence tearing through Central America sent some 60,000 unaccompanied minors into the U.S. in 2014 and similar numbers the two following years, said Angie Junck, supervising attorney and director of immigrant defense programs at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

At the same time, as a result of the influx of undocumented immigrants’ families from Mexico and other Latin American countries, “the number of youths at immigrant youth detention centers has grown twelve-fold over a 10- year period,” Junck said.

Cohen, Austin and Junck were speaking at a panel on immigrant youth at a conference on juvenile justice issues Friday, organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report.

Among the most disturbing charges made by Cohen and the other panelists: Minor behavior problems were being used as an excuse to diagnose and then forcibly medicate immigrant children held in the detention centers.

Adults representing themselves as therapists question the children about their backgrounds in order to extract information to be passed along and used against them.

“It’s analogous to (how) East Germany used mental health to imprison children,” Cohen charged.

Meanwhile, U.S. detention policies towards immigrant youth were being influenced by rhetoric that falsely painted them all as dangers to the safety of Americans, the conference was told.

Laila Hlass, director of Experiential Learning with Tulane University School of Law, said the now-discredited myth of “super-predator” youth, used to impose harsh penalties on juvenile offenders in the 1990s, had effectively been revived to justify the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies.

She said undocumented Latin young people from Central America were being stereotyped as recruits or members of the notorious Central American  MS-13 gang, in the same way that U.S. juvenile offenders were branded as merciless killers following several high profile crimes, such as the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case.

Editor’s Note: The five youths convicted and imprisoned for the crime were since exonerated. (President Donald Trump, however, has continued to insist they are guilty.)

Using gang allegations that have no proof attached to them whatsoever, school resource officers (SROs) target kids in a “school-to-deportation pipeline,” ensuring that the high-school-age youths are referred to nonprofit centers contracting with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the conference was told.

There they languish, often without knowing the charges against them, in homes that are on lockdown with “caged play areas,” forced to take anti-psychotic medication if they demonstrate behavior problems and, when they turn 18, are taken to even more secure facilities holding those convicted of violent crimes.

Information is rarely shared with families or the public, with the youths having fewer rights than juveniles with U.S. citizenship.

Only successfully waged lawsuits are producing information and, the advocates hope, some possibility of change.

Austin of the New York Civil Liberties Union has represented kids who were living on Long Island when they were abruptly removed from their homes and sent to facilities such as Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

She and other advocates said that SROs and school employees can file reports with immigration authorities and terrorism watch centers, based on what a student wears to school or who he stands next to in the hallway or where he sits at lunch.

Such accusations are “treated as fact” by risk-adverse judges, who order the kids into these restrictive centers. Families are helpless to get answers once this happens.

“Kids end up in quicksand,” Austin said. “They say the kids can’t be released if they are dangerous and there’s no criteria for how they are deemed ‘dangerous.’ ”

Long Island, N.Y., became the national focus of the hot-button issue of immigrant-youth crime after a series of horrific murders there were connected to members of MS-13, a transnational gang formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by the children of refugees from El Salvador.

Many of them were deported to El Salvador and Honduras, the homelands of their parents, where they regrouped to create a gang closely linked with drug cartels and is held responsible for the highest homicide rates in Latin America⸺and in turn has established new branches in the U.S.

On Aug. 19, Josue Portillo, a teenager living in Central Islip, N.Y., pleaded guilty to his role in the murders of four young men. Portillo, 15 at the time of the murders, which were committed with knives, machetes, and tree branches, crossed into the U.S. from El Salvador illegally.

“Mr. Portillo’s grandmother had sent him to be with his mother on Long Island to avoid the MS-13 gang in El Salvador,” according to a story published in The New York Times. Once in Central Islip, however, he “was an active, willing participant in [MS-13’s] violent culture.”

President Trump has singled out Long Island as a hotbed of MS-13 crime, shining a glaring spotlight on law enforcement there as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrived to the area to “support” police. In addition to the four young men murdered in 2017, two teenage girls were hacked to death in the street. Suffolk Country police said in 2017 that MS-13 was responsible for 17 murders.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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